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Will Cougar offense show its stuff today?

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The billboard may be the hyped debut of BYU freshman quarterback John Beck, but the show between the Cougars and visiting Pac-10 member Stanford in LaVell Edwards Stadium today may boil down to just two things: defense and the emergence of a Cougar running attack that actually means something.

Still, the Beck angle is alluring.

The Beck story is an added link to an emerging BYU offensive story that includes the play of just one more freshman in blue. You hook Beck up with tackle Eddie Keele, and guards Jake Kuresa and Ofa Mohetau, and the Coug offense appears to be in a backward time warp.

But make no mistake about it, the Bronco Mendenhall defense is leading BYU right now and that dominance should continue in this Cardinal showdown with the Cougars in Provo.

That doesn't detract from the billboard. BYU's offense is an enigma and has been all month long. Everyone's looking for some fireworks, some kind of explosion, a personality or trademark to emerge. In three games, it's yet to materialize.

Could today be the day, with the return of Marcus Whalen and emergence of Rey Brathwaite in the backfield?

Receiver Chris Hale, a kind of Cougar offensive novice in his own right, certainly hopes so.

Hale played as a freshman before going on an LDS mission, and upon his return in 2002 he sat out last season. Now, in three games for the Cougars he's caught 10 catches for 72 yards. The longest pass he's brought down was for 14 yards. Hale is good for a longer play. Beck may be the guy to get it to him today.

Being away from the game for two years, like Hale and Beck were on out-of-the-country mission service, isn't easy.

Getting back is a dream come true.

"I'm loving it, enjoying every minute," Hale said. "It's been a long time since I've been able to play, and every time I get the ball I want to make something happen, and hopefully in these next couple of games I'll be able to do something big."

For Beck, Hale hopes the freshman — who was in Portugal this time last year — has a quick return to the game today.

When asked about Beck's biggest challenge, Hale said:

"Just getting in the game mode, because it has been a long time since he's played. You can practice all you want, but until you get in a game it's something completely different. He's had some experience in a few of these games, but it's nothing like playing, and once he gets into that, it'll be like riding a bike, something you never forget."

Still, the show today should be defense. If BYU's young offense steals the storyline away from the defense, it would be a big headline indeed.

The picks:

BYU 34, STANFORD 13:John Beck will need half of the first quarter to shake off the adrenaline rush coursing through his body, and then you could see the return of the Cougar long ball. Look closely at Stanford's Trent Edwards. He was one of the elite high school passers when BYU recruit Ben Olson also starred. Comparing Beck and Edwards will be a great water-cooler debate in days to come.

AIR FORCE 34, WYOMING 21: The Falcons are off to a great 3-0 start, even if the competition has been runway fill. Look for Chance Harridge to hone his passing skills against the 1-2 Cowboys in Colorado Springs. The "Force" leads the series 20-18-2, and a Poke upset would rock the Rockies. But like no pain on a saddle-less ride, it ain't gonna happen.

COLORADO STATE 35, MIAMI-OHIO 21: The Rams are feeling their tines. Quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt is leading CSU's offense to a whopping 509 yards per game. The Achilles heel is the Ram pass defense, but when trading punches, Van Pelt has been a huge weapon and could be the difference in the MWC as league play gets under way in days to come.

WASHINGTON STATE 38, NEW MEXICO 21: The Cougars are explosive and have proven to be a tough Pac-10 candidate for the Rose Bowl. In this first meeting, in Pullman, look for WSU to have all the breaks in a game where turnovers rule. Tough back-to-back losses for the Lobos.

SAN DIEGO STATE 27, SAMFORD 10: The Aztec defense has been surprisingly tough all year and should have brought the MWC a win out of Columbus two weeks ago. Look for SDSU to go 3-1 with this victory over an undermanned opponent in Qualcomm Stadium.

Overall 18-4; last week 4-1.

E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com